Album: Hall of Fame Cities / Voltage Control Records
In the moments just before a show begins – before the house lights dim, the curtains open and the performers take the stage – there’s a distinct excitement and anticipation in the air. I’m sure fans of any sort of live entertainment know exactly the feeling I mean.
The air comes alive with a sort of electricity, a boundless sense of possibility. In my recent interview with Cleveland psych/krautrock/baroque-pop duo Regas-McDonald, Sam Regas and Matt McDonald were positively crackling with it. The excitement and enthusiasm for their new record, and for the debut of the material in front of a live audience, is undeniable and infectious.
Hall of Fame Cities, out now through Voltage Control Records, channels and directs the duo’s electric energy into a brand-new style of recording and songcraft. The duo have taken their time with this record, tinkering and experimenting with minute details while in isolation. They’ve also traded the musical atmosphere of a rock club for that of a concert hall. Guitars, basses and drums haven’t gone anywhere, but the band’s newfound emphasis on ornate orchestral arrangements shifts the record’s focus into something altogether more classical and conceptual. The result is the headphone-album equivalent of a cast-of-thousands theatrical revue, complete with a full orchestra and a troupe of dancers.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the opening strains of For the Vain and Lepered make the perfect overture. The record’s advance single starts with a few chimes and a soft build before a whimsical, jaunty honky-tonk piano sets the stage for the show to come. After a bit of dramatic stop-and-start, the song explodes into Technicolor reverie at its midpoint, as ice-rink organs and electric guitar rise up around Regas’s deft and nimble psyched-out vocals. The strings that enter in the song’s coda simply take the breath away, transitioning into the song’s outro with a beautifully symphonic sensibility.
By the time the chimes from the opening return over some strange backwards noise to close the song, it’s clear that Regas-McDonald have stepped their game up considerably. Their songwriting and arrangements have sharpened to meet their newly theatrical focus and presentation, and the result shows a high level of craftsmanship. This new style of arrangement makes this song deeply immersive, especially in headphones; at one point, a few quick kick drum hits startled me into thinking someone was knocking at my door, which speaks to how easily one can get lost in these ornate murals of sound.
Impressions I: The Mother takes us to a more familiar psych-rock tempo and cadence, though the song is soon surrounded on all sides by strange MIDI horns and unidentifiable sounds. The way the piece grooves and builds around layers of keyboards and organs reminds me of Stereolab, which is always a good thing. It’s also great to hear some judiciously applied rock ‘n’ roll drums add a chugging, driving rhythm to the whole affair. Rather than returning to the classic psych-rock style that the band nailed down on their debut LP Toward Void and Vistas, Regas-McDonald has pulled off the neat trick of further bending and inverting the “rock” sound into a photo negative of itself.
While the band has always had great lyrics, they’re thrown into much sharper relief here. Regas, who handles the majority of vocal duties, has placed a newfound emphasis on vocal clarity and delivery This set of lyrics is particularly good, and even among the merry mayhem of the song’s arrangement and vocal effects it’s easy to pick the words out. (“Ah, we’re all ghettoized lizards with a taste for bacchanalia,” laments Regas.) At the song’s end, a wave of organs and twirling keyboard lines abruptly dumps the listener into what sounds like a hall of mirrors, filled with hypnotic suggestions and strange back-of-the-ear stuff.
The album’s standout cut Bridge and Canasta is a symphony unto itself, blooming into a wall of almost theremin-like choir vocals for the first minute or so. Suddenly a piano steps into the spotlight, accompanied by light chimes and whacked-out, wordless vocals, and a waltz-time groove develops. The song’s mystifying but fascinating combination of MIDI orchestra and acoustic instruments is striking and undeniably theatrical. Regas’s vocal on this one is deliberate and delicate, giving it an operatic or even chamber-music sort of feeling. It’s great to hear the band use more traditional rock instruments in this newly classical context, grounding their advanced songwriting in the familiar while steeping it in the strange.
At about the halfway mark, the piano creates a new melodic motif by itself. Harps, strings, and ghostly vocal harmonies join in effortlessly, giving the piece a jaw-dropping elegance and lightly sweeping motion. The result feels like a classic Hollywood soundtrack, or perhaps an old Broadway revue. By the time the drums and Regas’s lovely vocal return for the final chorus, the piece reaches its emotional apex, swelling into fathoms of genuine heart-in-throat emotion. It’s clear that Regas-McDonald spent a great deal of time making this piece ebb and flow exactly the way it needs to, the same way composers of an opera or musical might meticulously arrange the show’s standout number.
Terribly American kicks off the second half of the record with some highly processed weird sounds before a strange backwards keyboard creates gauzy and moody chords. Regas’s vocal is gentle and plaintive, but his lyrics are stinging and incisive: “Terribly American / When you’re grovelling at the knee / Gasping in high altitude, heaving and pleading / To your lady, your father, to strangers – it’s all the same, really.” Taken together with the somber and labored-over arrangement, the whole piece feels simply tragic.
This funereal mood is underscored by bottomed-out organs and a methodically dissonant arrangement. The bridge bends and decays back into the final verse, which is awesome. The closing bars are buried beneath a wash of judiciously applied vocal effects and more dissonant keyboards, queasily leading the song to its ambiguous conclusion. To be American, Regas-McDonald argues, is to live out a bitterly ironic series of dissatisfying contradictions. It’s pretty hard to argue with that, and even harder to dispute the growing nuance of the duo’s authorial and musical voice.
The album’s longest piece by far, and one of its finest, is Impressions II: The Girl Who Tried to Find Her Northern Lights. Much like Impressions I, the piece kicks off with a more conventional rock rhythm before taking it to newer and stranger places. The piano-and-drum combination reminds me of the more Genesis side of Peter Gabriel (absolutely a compliment). Some skating-rink organs join this rhythm to cloud the picture a bit, and a backwards harmonica further complicates matters in a very exciting way. By the time Regas’s unusually clear high-register vocals beam in like a shaft of light, the band has developed an ice-palace groove, one rife with caverns of icicle-like pianos.
An exuberant mandolin solo from McDonald – a musical highlight of the record – sweeps us abruptly into the song’s second half, which strips things back significantly only to rebuild in a different image. A patchwork of warped synthesis segues into a drum-led march. As Regas’s voice grows increasingly warped and processed, strange keyboards and audio samples pop out of the undergrowth. The song builds richly into another emotional apex of sweeping strings and horns, anchored beautifully by a bit more rock drumming.
Finally, the piece settles slowly and gently into a kazoo-and-piano denouement – that is, until more warping and a cloud of digital noise overwhelms the proceedings. The listener practically falls into an Olivia Tremor Control-esque mirrored room of cracked and bent vocal harmonies, with one last (very slight) jump-scare of feedback and sound to close the song. That’s a pretty wild place for a 14-minute song to end up, but that’s psychedelic music for you. Besides, the fact that Regas-McDonald can make something this esoteric on paper work wonders in real time shows just how hard they’re firing on all cylinders.
After the largely orchestral presentation of the rest of the record, the closing track’s return to more straight-ahead psych-rock cadences is highly welcome and comes almost as a shock. Windcandy Muse is effortlessly beautiful, weaving intricate acoustic guitar strums and vocal harmonies into a rich tapestry. (My notes for this song read “blotter paper with the Sotto Voce logo on it.”) There’s even a lovely synth that reminds me of David Wise’s work on the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack, oddly enough. The piece fades and folds into a beautiful ambient ending that sounds like the sun setting underwater. This prismatic and pristine return to guitars and harmonies is one of my favorite things I’ve heard from Regas-McDonald, and it’s the perfect way to close what is undoubtedly the band’s finest work yet.
If all of the above sounds like a lot for the ears to take in, rest assured that it absolutely is. Regas and McDonald have crafted a densely layered, richly complex record that feels more like a song suite than a simple collection of tunes. It’s apparent that both musicians put a lot of thought, work, passion and skill into every aspect of making Hall of Fame Cities, and it’s a good thing they did. The sheer quality and panache on display here speaks volumes about how far the duo have come as musicians. Their ability to construct a living, breathing canvas of turn-of-the-century sounds and styles make me extremely excited for what the duo’s next production may hold. I’d recommend getting front-row seats.
- For the Vain and Lepered
- Impressions I: The Mother
- Bridge and Canasta
- Terribly American
- Impressions II: The Girl Who Tried to Find Her Northern Lights
- Windcandy Muse